San Antonio Spurs are winless in four games- until they beat Cleveland Cavaliers early this morning-, under threat of falling further down the Western Conference standings and its championship contending status is in serious doubt.
Without its best player, the Spurs don’t project to travel deep in the postseason just the way last season’s playoffs turned out. Without Kawhi, Spurs 23 point lead against Golden State Warriors evaporated leading to a sweep in the conference finals.
It is almost unthinkable to believe San Antonio will completely disintegrate and miss the playoffs entirely; the Spurs are too good for that with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol on the roster and Gregg Popovich pulling the strings. But the West is too jam packed to breathe easy after a loss since only a couple of games separate sixth ranked Portland Trailblazers from ninth ranked Los Angeles Clippers.
Further losses down the line mean Spurs will likely play the league’s best side Houston Rockets or defending Champions Golden State Warriors in the postseason first round. Looking to the 2018-2019 season, matters remain vague as Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent once the season concludes. Should he opt out of his five year contract activated in 2015, Leonard would be joining the likes of Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving on the market.
Like all teams with enough cap room to potentially sign Kawhi to what will definitely be an astronomical sum, San Antonio will have a crack at getting the former San Diego player to extend his stay. Ideally, the team shouldn’t be worried since the NBA has passed rules to ensure teams operating in small markets have a big chance of retaining star players. The designated player maximum contracts enables teams sign incumbent players for up to 30% of the salary cap. On the other hand, other teams can sign free agent players to maximum deals up to 25% of the salary cap.
However, there is a catch as players eligible to take a huge chunk of the salary cap must satisfy conditions of the Derrick Rose rule. This rule state players eligible for designated player contracts must have either won the MVP Award or earned All NBA Team Membership twice between the second and fourth season in the league. Kawhi is eligible since he received the first of his two Defensive Player of the Year titles in his fourth season in 2015. This means Leonard is eligible to sign a five year deal reportedly worth $219 million as a designated player. Anthony Davis was eligible to earn such a lucrative deal but missed it since he was not selected to the All NBA Team after last season.
In the process, Davis will lose a combined sum of $25 million over the course of his five year contract. Spurs can offer $219 million but the best teams can offer Leonard is a little over $180 million. This situation should give Spurs a lot of room to breathe due to the enormous advantage but recent happenings does not give San Antonio that much comfort.
In recent seasons, elite players (who earn a lot of money from endorsements) are forgoing such contracts to sign for teams who can offer four year max deals. Dwight Howard joined Houston Rockets on a four year $87 million contract rejecting Los Angeles Lakers five year $118 million deal. LeBron James signed for less to join Miami Heat from Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 and as an MVP winner Kevin Durant was eligible to sign a designated max deal with Oklahoma City Thunder but left the team.
Durant ended up signing for Golden State Warriors for $27 million in his first season which is six million dollars less than his projected starting salary if he resigned for OKC. Moreover, players are more interested in maintaining control over their future making them sign flexible short term deals. Durant signed a two year guaranteed deal worth $51 million after playing his one year guaranteed first season with the Warriors and opted out to rework the above stated contract. Kawhi must also factor the absence of Popovich in the near future as the revered trainer is just three seasons away from seeing out his last NBA contract.
Signing a five year deal could see have Kawhi play for a different Coach with its associated uncertainties. Leonard is yet to taste free agency as a player and is likely to explore his options during and before next season ends which doesn’t ease San Antonio’s discomfort a bit.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter